For Mauro Melgar, record expungement is not just an abstract policy, it’s something that has had a profound impact on his life.
After partying with his friends on Labor Day weekend in 2008, he hitched a ride back with a friend. Just outside his parents’ Los Angeles home, they were pulled over because the driver didn’t use his turn signal.
“The officer smelled the weed and asked who had it,” Melgar recounted to Filter. “I had two ounces in baggies I had just picked up.” For that, Melgar was arrested and convicted of a felony at the age of 18—a record which, it seemed, would restrict his rights and opportunities forever.
National Expungement Week (NEW) takes place from September 19 through September 26. Its program focuses on how people with criminal records face over 44,000 different forms of legal discrimination related to jobs, housing, education and other areas of life. Organizers will be holding virtual and in-person events in 14 states and Washington, DC to teach people how to expunge their records—not just for cannabis—and push for bolder justice reform.
This is the third annual event since NEW launched in 2018. Both the event and the movement have grown rapidly: Last year, over 3,000 people received services of some kind through NEW, including clearing or reducing court fees or fines, and over 650 began the process of expunging or sealing their record. Other services offered include helping people to engage with social services, employment-related education, voter registration, and health screenings. NEW estimates that its efforts have saved state and local governments over $10 million to date.
“Our year-round work never stops, and we are determined to use this week to inspire communities to take action, clear records, and restore the rights of some of the 77 million justice-impacted people in the US,” said LaTorie Marshall, the event’s co-founder, in a press release.
Mauro Melgar’s parents came outside that day and saw him being arrested. He admitted to the police he was selling marijuana. At the time, he had dropped out of high school and taken up selling as a way to make “easy money.”
Charged with a felony marijuana offense—his first ever—he accepted a plea deal to serve one year in the Los Angeles County Jail, and three years of probation. Had he not, he would have served even more time.
“I wouldn’t recommend anyone going to jail,” Melgar said, recalling that he was terrified at the time. “It’s a different world with its own rules. You learn what to do from seeing the other inmates, and how to keep your mouth shut.”
He slept with two other men on a triple-decker, metal bunk bed with thin mats for padding. Food was served three times a day, just enough for you to get by. As for the jail deputies and staff, “they treat you like animals,” he said. “You tell yourself, ‘I’m not coming back here’. Freedom is nice, you should cherish it.”
“I used to look at job listings and they would read, ‘no felonies.’”
The trouble was, that was just the beginning. After leaving jail, Melgar had to meet with his probation officer every month for three years. Each month, he owed his restitution payment. The hardest part was coming up with the money—because he struggled to find a job that would accept him.
“I used to look at job listings and they would read, ‘no felonies,’” he said. “I would never get a call back. It’s really hard, many people never get out of this system. You have to keep going to see your officer, and any little mistake you make, you get sent back to jail.”
Melgar’s father owned an automobile glass business, and he employed his son to work with him. He eventually took over ownership of the business. He finished his probation, thinking that was the end of the story.
But in November 2016, Californians voted to approve marijuana legalization. Melgar was amazed that the same drug that once got him locked up would now be legally sold in stores. What he did not know was that this same legalization reform also started the long process—later codified through further state legislation and signed by the governor—to allow people like him to clear their marijuana convictions.
Melgar was scrolling through Instagram when he saw a post from Cage Free Cannabis informing him he could expunge his record. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “Being put aside and put down for your love for a plant, all your life, and being told you were wrong but knowing you were right all along … is an amazing feeling. I went to jail for selling weed. I disobeyed the law but the idea of being a cannabis business entrepreneur was right on the money.”
Getting his record cleared opened up new possibilities for him.
He went to his first local expungement clinic in Los Angeles, photo ID in hand. The organizers gave him a petition for record clearing, and told him to take it to the courthouse—“The same court house where I once turned myself in to go to jail for sales of marijuana agreed to expunge my record.”
Two months passed, and Melgar was uncertain. He went back to the courthouse, and to another expungement clinic, wondering if he missed any steps. Then he got a letter in the mail telling him his record was cleared, with no fees due.
It had been 10 long years since Melgar’s conviction. Getting his record cleared (California does not offer true expungement, though the benefits are similar) opened up new possibilities for him.
“I decided to go back to school to get my high school diploma,” he said. “Due to the pandemic that’s slowed down, but I’m working to graduate by the end of this year. Now I could go anywhere and submit a job application and have a good chance of getting it.”
The Information Gap
Melgar was surprised at how fast and easy the expungement process was for him. But there’s one huge caveat: “You’d expect the city to reach out to the community and tell us we’re eligible, but that’s not the case,” he said. “It’s restorative justice advocates that are doing the government’s work. Most people that qualify for expungement don’t know about it.”
“People won’t give you this information because they know it empowers you.”
This is a problem many people like Melgar face in California and other states, like Illinois, that have legalized cannabis and ostensibly allow record expungement. The burden is on you to determine if you are eligible, fill out the paperwork, find the right courthouse, and submit the application. That can be difficult if you lack the time to do all this yourself, or don’t have the right information about your record to prepare your petition—assuming you even know you’re eligible.
To fix this, California passed a law in 2018 that is supposed to make cannabis record clearing automatic. The state must review all eligible cannabis cases going back to the 1970s, then forward those petitions to county prosecutor’s offices. The counties were given one year to approve or challenge the petitions, with the deadline expiring this past July.
Some county DA’s offices—in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Santa Clara, to name a few—have also recently taken action to clear tens of thousands of cannabis convictions simultaneously, in partnership with the social entrepreneurship technology company Code for America.
“The hardest part about all of this is just having the right information,” said Ingrid Archie, a civic engagement coordinator for A New Way of Life. “People won’t give you this information because they know it empowers you.”
Archie was first swept up in the criminal justice system at age 14. Until age 30, she cycled in and out of jail, foster homes and state prison for various charges including marijuana and theft.
She was in prison when California voters approved Proposition 47 in 2014. This re-categorized many nonviolent felony offenses as misdemeanors, allowing people with those convictions to petition for resentencing and reduction.
“I stayed in jail for nothing. I could have come home.”
But Archie had to learn herself–from other people inside–what Prop 47 was, and how to use it.
“I stayed in jail for nothing,” she told Filter. “I could have come home. I was in court the day before Prop 47 passed, and my lawyer pushed for me to go to prison. I’m Black and I’m female, and it’s more lucrative for them to keep us in a prison bed.”
After Prop 64 passed, legalizing recreational marijuana, Archie was also one of the first to petition to have her felony marijuana charge reduced to a misdemeanor. That record is now sealed. Yet despite these forward steps, California’s version of record-sealing remains far from ideal.
“The biggest misconception is people think record expungement brings liberation–it doesn’t,” Archie said. “It’s a way for you to gain access to some jobs, but not all. If someone wants to do a background check on you they will [still] see what you did, with little letters under your record reading ‘expunged.’ We need to do better by sealing records and allowing people the opportunity to move forward in life.”
Archie and her organization work in her home neighborhood of Watts, Los Angeles, to help at-risk youth avoid the horrors she experienced. They register voters and teach people about the criminal justice system and government. And of course, they help people expunge or clear their records.
As for Melgar, he joined the movement to fight for automatic expungement, traveling to Sacramento in 2018 to talk to state lawmakers. This year, he is sharing his experiences by hosting a NEW expungement event in Los Angeles during NEW 2020.
Melgar continues to be a proud cannabis consumer and grower—he was trimming his own home plants while we spoke on the phone. He took a picture recently of his dad, smiling, next to his plants. But still he thinks back on the old times—when his dad flushed his weed down the toilet, and would come visit him in jail.
“The justice system doesn’t really fix people’s lives,” he said. “It just does more damage than the actual crimes they committed. It’s not about us anymore, it’s about the future. If we can’t provide for our kids, they’re going to pay for our mistakes.”
Photo by National Expungement Week via Facebook